Tired crews from across U.S. labor to restore Fla.'s power

Md. contractors started for home twice, went back

September 08, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

VENICE, Fla. - It's common after a natural disaster for power companies to say their crews are working around the clock to restore electricity.

It's not true. Todd Akers slept until 5 a.m. yesterday, after working until 11 the night before.

"I'm worn out," the 38-year-old Baltimore Gas and Electric contractor says.

Akers has been laboring to restore power to this weather-weary state since Hurricane Charley hit last month. He thought he was heading home twice, only to be called back.

His time card indicates he has worked more than 200 hours over the past two weeks. And he might just be getting started.

To spend a day with Akers' five-man crew is to realize that an entire state has been staggered by a 400-mile-wide storm, that Hurricane Frances was in most ways as disastrous as its predecessor and that climbing citrus trees and crossing swamps are prerequisites for fixing power lines here.

This Sarasota County town sits on the Gulf of Mexico, about 60 miles south of where Frances' eye crossed the state. It sits just 30 miles northeast of Punta Gorda, ground zero for Charley last month. But Charley barely touched this county; Frances left 50,000 without power.

Where Charley was a weed-whacker, violently and quickly clearing a path in a matter of hours across the state, Frances was a lawnmower, grinding away at the entire peninsula for a weekend. Frances left more than 5 million people without power.

2 million waiting

About 2 million remained in the dark last night - on the Atlantic Coast where it came ashore and on the Gulf Coast in Tampa, where police directed the evening rush hour because traffic signals were out. About 17,250 out-of-state utility workers have come to Florida to help turn on the lights and air conditioners again.

Many schools and businesses across the state were closed. Some people could be without electricity for a month, utility officials said.

The number of people without electricity here - where Akers and his crew are working - had been reduced to about 12,000 by late afternoon, a Florida Power and Light Co. spokesman said.

"We go from being heroes to zeroes," Akers says. "You're a hero as soon as you show up, but just as soon as the lights go on, you're back to being a zero."

Their day began before dawn at the Holiday Inn Express in Port Charlotte, near where Charley hit. The men have been living there for the past several weeks, two to a room - except for Alvin Moses, who sometimes gets his own room because he snores too loud.

BGE contractor

Crews from around the country gathered in Port Charlotte to get assignments. For a group of 48 electric line workers and foremen from Shaw Energy, a BGE contractor, that meant a journey up Interstate 75 to Venice.

First stop for Akers' crew: Country Club Estates, a retirement complex of 508 mobile homes. A severed line had left nearly the entire community without power since Sunday night. Arthur Welch, 88, rode around on his bicycle to spread the news of the workers' arrival.

"Are you from the power company?" asked resident Peggy Romanelli. "Yea! You're wonderful!"

Heroes.

Akers' crew grounded the wires on each side of the break to prevent any unexpected power flow. Akers rose 40 feet in a hydraulic bucket, hitched one side of the broken line to the pole and then the other. Eugenio Tzompaxtie climbed a grapefruit tree to grab the line and pass it to Akers.

Then Jose Toledo reconnected a wire ripped from a street light and Akers flipped shut the broken fuse at the community entrance. Less than two hours after the crew arrived, air conditioners were humming.

Minutes later, as the crew gathered with others at a mall's parking lot for lunch, a woman approached. She didn't have power, she told Akers. Her mother was having chemotherapy treatments. And she had an observation: "It's just a lot of people sitting here right now."

Zeroes.

In all, 105 BGE contractors are working around the state of Florida, and 75 others are scheduled to leave today to join them, company spokeswoman Linda Foy said.

The movement of workers to Florida is reminiscent of last year when 2,800 workers from 27 states and Canada came to Maryland in the wake of Tropical Storm Isabel, Foy said. Utilities in need pay the salaries and travel expenses for incoming help, she said.

"Whenever there is a storm out there," she said, "there is mutual assistance."

Second round

Akers, his crew and other crews working for Sammy Hall left Maryland on Aug. 15 to respond to Hurricane Charley. For two weeks they worked near Orlando. Then they thought their work was finished and started driving home. But when they reached the Georgia line, they were called back to work near Punta Gorda.

Two weekends ago, they again thought they were finished. They celebrated their only day off since arriving with a beach party at Siesta Key, complete with a foremen-vs.-crew-members volleyball match.

And then Frances hit. At this point they are making desperate, and only half-joking, pleas to the manager at BGE who controls their fate.

"Whatever we did, we apologize and we would like to come back," Akers and others said in unison.

Difficult conditions

The crews will continue their work here until the job is down to searching for pockets of one, two or three homes without power.

Florida work is made difficult by the location of wires, workers here said. Some dangle above swamps. Others are strung from poles that are inaccessible except by foot; the soggy and sandy ground would entrap any truck.

In contrast to cities, restoring power to large numbers of households takes longer in sprawling Florida, Akers said. Each fix doesn't return electricity to 600, 700 or 1,000 homes, he said. Yesterday, his crew worked on secondary lines that supply 40 homes each.

When Akers' crew is done in Sarasota County, it will head to the Melbourne area on the Atlantic Coast, where Frances made landfall. They're done guessing departure dates.

"When I get all the power on in Florida," Akers says. "You pick a date."

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